As a Yank living in Canada, I often find myself in good-natured debates with my Canadian friends about our respective countries. After the obligatory discussion of tax rates, beer, and climate, the Canadians invevitably pull out what they consider the ultimate topper: “Watch out. We burned down the White House once, and we can do it again!”
Of course, they’re referring to the events of August 24, 1814, when British troops burned the White House and other buildings in Washington during the tail end of the War of 1812.
It seems to be a firmly established piece of Canadian folklore that Canadians were the ones who put the torch to the Executive Residence. If you doubt this, do a Google search on “Canadian burn White House” for a lengthy list of patriotic Canadians who assert this as fact.
There’s just one problem with the story. I can’t find a single bit of evidence to back it up.
To be sure, Canada was part of the British Empire at the time, and British troops did burn Washington. But it’s clear that when my northern friends say “we,” they don’t mean “troops of the Empire of which Canada was then part.” I mean, it’s not like they go around boasting that “we colonized India” and “we defeated the French at Trafalgar.” What they mean is that actual Canadians, i.e. people born in what is now Canda, reduced the presidential palace to a smoking ruin.
However, I can’t find anything that suggests troops from Canada were there at all. The only reference I’ve found so far was in a CBC TV documentary on the War of 1812. It said that the troops who took part on the raid on Washington had just been transferred from fighting Napoleon in Europe. That would tend to suggest that the troops were born in Britain, not Canadians.
I need conclusive proof one way or the other, though. Did Canadians burn the White House, or is it just wishful thinking on their part?